A new Chinese adventure is coming to town, and the bright head behind it is Michelle Zhao.
Text and photo: Irene R. Mjelde
– “HELLO! Have you been eating?” is a common way to greet each other in China. Instead of “How are you?” we simply ask if the other person has eaten yet. It is an easy way to express that you care. But you do not have to start a long conversation about it. Just answer: “I have eaten, what about you?”
Michelle Zhao (37) was born and raised in Kunming, the capital of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Already as a 18 years old she moved abroad, starting in Vienna in Austria. Since 2012 her home have been in Bergen.
– As I grew older I begun to miss my hometown cooking, and at some point these latest years I started thinking: “Chinese food is my heritage, I should feel proud to present it to my friends and people in the world. If I do not take the responsibility of informing, who will?”
SO, Zhao started a blog. She called it No Sweet Sour, and as the Instagram feed became more successful and popular, she started to host pop-ups and arrange private dinner parties and tutorials, while sharing the happening on her social media channels on a daily basis.
– For a long time I had been looking for something new to do with my life, but I could not figure out what it was going to be. My biggest advantage is that I am passionate about cooking, and that I always am interested in learning new things. During the work with the blog my head started spinning around the idea of starting a restaurant in the future.
Zhao believes that a lot of Norwegians have a lack of knowledge about Chinese food culture.
– There is a huge difference between the food culture in every province in China. I want to present the one I know the best, show a bit of the culture I grew up with. I want to offer the people of Bergen a taste of my neighborhood, my China.
PREMISES: There is a lot to be done before the restaurant is ready to be welcoming guests.
THE RESTAURANT idea was formed in January this year, and in March Zhao had her business plan ready. Etablerersenteret’s journalist is meeting her in the shell of her upcoming restaurant in the center of Bergen. Right now the premises is a work space. The floors are covered with sand and stones, the walls almost as bad, there are building materials all over the place, and the smell of concrete is definitely stronger than the smell of fragrant saucepans. But the potential is definitely huge, and with a creative mind and a bit of fantasy one can easily imagine the great kind of restaurant this will be turned into.
– The business idea was finished half a year ago, but as you can see this takes time, and even extra time because of covid, Zhao elaborates.
The name of the restaurant will be “Banzha”.
– You will not find the word in any Chinese dictionary. In my hometown “banzha” is local slang for the English word “awesome”, meaning a general description of a positive experience, she informs.
WE CLEER a path between tools and pebbles up the stairs and enter the second floor. In the back of the dining area, where sunlight flows in from the windows facing out to what will become Banzha's terrace for outdoor dining, we find a simple stick chair. Zhao urge me to use it.
– I am really looking forward to be starting properly, she says, sweeping her eyes around the room.
– The start-up phase has been an exciting and rewarding experience despite the challenges, such as to learn and understand the rules and regulations when starting a business in Norway.
Two years ago Zhao participated at Etablerersenteret’s program Business Factory, a course specially made for multicultural entrepreneurs. It is running once a year and is financed by Integrering og mangfoldsdirektoratet (IMDi). Over the years they have had over 100 participants with more than 40 different nationalities. In six full course days the participants learn about the formalities that must be in place to start a business in Norway, such as registration, rights, name, tax and VAT, economy, business modeling and marketing, network and cultural understanding. Participants also get training in using digital tools, and guidance when it comes to develop their business idea.
FURTHER ON Etablerersenteret has created an alumni network, where participants of the year get to meet founders from the former year courses. They also arrange meetings called Link Up @ The Library – a network meeting open for all participants from different courses at Etablerersenteret, including ethnic Norwegian founders.
– This was a very helpful course to gain the essential information when starting one´s own business, Zhao states.
– I got to network with many other people from different nations, got familiar with the ideal and concept, gaining a clear vision for my company.
She describes the advisers at the course as very welcoming and extremely warm and kind teachers.
– Etablerersenteret’s Business Factory is a really good program. It helped me a lot being able to participate there and get knowledge about the Norwegian way of business.
FUTURE: Look for the recourses around you, Michelle Zhao encourages.
THE UPCOMING restaurant owner also signed up as a member of Impact Hub Bergen, a collaborative meeting- and learning area for people who want to create a positive impact. Via a program there she was happy to find a fellow founder, who already is the owner of tree other restaurants in the Bergen area.
– He was my mentor and got to know all about my plans. We pared our knowledge together, his expertise with starting and running restaurants, and mine with the concept and plans around the menu.
Under two solid archways downstairs, the kitchen will produce local dishes from southern China.
– Banzha will be offering lunch, dinner and drinks. The recipes will be focused on using local Norwegian ingredients and seasonal vegetables, and add a twist with typical Chinese spices to turn them into a meal that my family and friends in China would prepare in their daily lives. There they also focus on making things from scratch, which is actually much easier than it sounds, and the taste is of course much better.
– What makes you the most proud about your work so far?
– That I am starting a business that I truly believe in and am passionate about.
– What is the biggest difference between running a firm here compared to the way they do it in China?
– The rules and regulations is very different here, but the basics of running a firm is still the same. Starting a business is hard work wherever you are.
ZHAO states that starting a company you have to make a lot of investments, not only your time.
– For instance it can be smart to work double for a while. Financially it is easier if you keep the job you have, if you have one, during the planning period. To have a steady income on the side is important to be able to pay your daily expenditure. All the paperwork and bureaucracy takes so much more time than you expect. There is a lot of things to learn, and things not always work out.
– What extra challenges do you have to deal with being a foreign founder, and a female one too?
– Once again, understanding the Norwegian regulations and laws, but it comes with practice.
– But have you noticed any extra challenges with being a woman during this last half year?
Zhao is thinking for two seconds, answering:
– I have not really thought about that issue.
DOWNSTAIRS: Under these charming archways, the kitchen team will make tasty dishes from southern China.
– WHAT IS the best way to integrate to the business environment in Bergen?
– I am still quite new in the game, and still working with getting into it. But what I know is that it is important to create a network around you. You have to build up connections and income. And of course you have to have a good idea, and be able to putting in the efford to make it happen.
– What are your top three pieces of advice for others who want to start their own business?
– Start with something you are not only passionate about but also good at. Make sure you understand minimum the basic of the financial part of running a business. And stay with your day job. At least in the beginning.
What Zhao sees as the most fun about running her own company is the excitement of starting something that is her own, and the excitement by looking forward to see how everything will work out.
– I want to create the best possible restaurant I can manage. I rather spend some extra time now, developing the restaurant as good as it can be, than feeling dissatisfied when everything is ready and running.
– What keeps you going?
– It gives me the drive doing something worthwhile. I am so much looking forward to introduce the people of Bergen to my cuisine. To show them a part of who I am and where I am from.